As a historian, one of the things I most appreciate about C. S. Lewis is his conviction that the present has much to learn from the past. As a teacher, one of the things I admire most about Lewis is his ability to communicate that conviction in an accessible, memorable, and imaginative way. The extended quote below from my commonplace book wonderfully embodies both of these features.
The quote comes from Lewis’s WWII-era classic The Screwtape Letters. If you’re not familiar with the book, I heartily recommend it. It is a great example of Lewis’s genius at using imaginative literature to convey spiritual truth. The book consists of a series of 31 letters from a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood. Throughout the letters, Screwtape lavishes his nephew with advice on how to cause Christians to stumble. The book is both engaging and convicting, as long as you remember that everything comes from a diabolical perspective. What Screwtape is recommending, Lewis is warning us to avoid.
Toward the end of the book, in letter 27, Screwtape shares with Wormwood about what he calls “the Historical Point of View.” In context, Screwtape has been explaining to his nephew how best to undermine the effectiveness of human prayers. He notes that an ancient writer had shared insights that, if humans took them to heart, would badly undermine the devils’ strategy. There is no need to worry, however, Screwtape assures his nephew. “Only the learned read old books, and we [he means the devils of Hell] have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” Screwtape then goes on to explain the reason for this hellish success:
We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge–to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior–this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to Our Father [i.e., Satan] and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”
Isn’t that a delightful passage? I could go on and on about it, but let me share just a few observations. First, Lewis is reminding us that there are moral consequences to our ready dismissal of the past. By cutting ourselves off from all those who have gone before us, we forfeit the hard-won wisdom of experience that our ancestors might otherwise bequeath to us. This lessens our ability to live virtuously. Our contempt for the past is itself a sign of a moral shortcoming on our part, namely intellectual pride–or what Lewis elsewhere labeled “chronological snobbery.”
Second, while there are many reasons why western society as a whole learns little from history, be sure to notice that in this passage Lewis is focused on “the learned.” The Historical Point of View that he describes is most pronounced among the well educated, but I think we can be even more specific: In the United States, at least, the Historical Point of View–the mindset that finds it “unutterably simple-minded” to suppose that one could learn how to live by studying the past–is most pronounced among academic historians. At its best–in the words of historian David Harlan–the study of history should be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Too often in today’s universities, however, the study of history is a closed, self-referential conversation that individuals with Ph.Ds have with each other.
Finally, don’t miss the potshot that Lewis takes at the individual who was then the wealthiest man in the world. During WWI, automobile tycoon Henry Ford had famously lectured Congress on the worthlessness of the past. “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world,” Ford proclaimed. “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
Somewhere in the Lowerarchy of Hell, Screwtape smiled.